Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Grand Challenges in Math and Science

What are the grand challenges in mathematics and science that can inspire the next generation? In the sixties it was the challenge of space and racing to the moon. Now our challenges seem at the same time so much closer to home and so much more daunting: climate change, energy needs, an aging world population, and the threat of nuclear terror, to name just a few.

Our business and economic leaders have been touting the need for a better-trained workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the so-called STEM subjects. But their message about competitiveness is not getting through in a personal way. The Public Agenda Foundation continues to find that although most Americans agree that there will be plenty of opportunities for jobs involving math and science in the future, more than half of parents say the amount of both their kids are getting in school now is plenty good enough. Meanwhile, the American College Testing service reports that fewer than half of graduating high school seniors are prepared for college math and just over a quarter are prepared for college science. At the same time, 70% of Americans say there's no need to start studying sciene until middle school. But we know that by middle school, kids are already sorting themseves into those who do science and those who don't. Without science in school, how are they going to be inspired to think of themselves as potential scientists?

These questions and dilemmas are some of the reasons the Noyce Foundation has chosen in the last few years to focus on informal or out-of-school science, where we hope kids will find something to excite them. The bigger question of what it will take to motivate and inspire today's students is one I addressed in my keynote address last week at a conference sponsored by the Iowa Math and Science Education Partnership and attended by over a hundred higher education faculty who prepare math and science teachers.

You can find a link to my Iowa presentation here.

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